Refugee employment in UK
March 19, 2020
Step by step…
March 31, 2020

Using social enterprise to restart interrupted careers of refugee professionals

Combining career guidance and social enterprise recruitment

In 2010, when the financial crash happened, I was made redundant and found myself at a crossroads with a real-live opportunity-threat. The opportunity to craft some innovations into a social enterprise IAG & recruitment service. The threat of whether or not it would work. 

I finished my DipCG at UEL in 2000 and specialised thereafter in providing IAG services, based at two London universities, for refugee professionals: accountants, architects, doctors, engineers, scientists, teachers.  Even a crocodile farmer…  

IAG alone as support

Most of the services were client-facing: 1-1 interviews, group sessions, APEL portfolio building, advocacy with professional bodies and Naric comparison of qualifications.   The clients liked the service and knew more about the UK labour market and how to identify their transferable skills but …… all that rarely led to relevant employment, either short term contracts or permanent ones. The barriers between employers and clients were too many.  Too many barriers and too few interviews. 

As a careers service, how to address the barriers?  That was the dilemma.  Almost by chance, we obtained some funding to pilot a work experience project: what we were offering was work experience to break down barriers between employers and refugee professionals.

It worked much better than even we had hoped. Following intensive IAG preparation and advocacy with mostly large employers, the 6-month voluntary placements enabled about 50% of the 25 professionals to gain UK experience and be retained on permanent or at least 6 -12 month contracts. Mostly accountants, architects and engineers.  It required careful project management to broker, set up and co-manage placements effectively, but we made it work.

Happy employers started to point out that we were providing a free recruitment service.  In fact, much more than a free recruitment service. Ironically, some of them even hired our work experience clients through their own preferred recruitment agency at the end of the placement. That agency did little work and were paid a fee for hiring a candidate that they would probably have rejected had the employer themselves not introduced the candidate. 

An idea began to grow …. 

A social enterprise recruitment service, underpinned by impartial IAG.   Enabling good employers to choose such a recruitment service as part of their inclusive talent attraction strategy.   Enabling refugee professional candidates to have a recruitment service that proactively included them in the recruitment market.  Win-win-win.   Income generation for the social enterprise, jobs for candidates and great hires for good employers. 

Transitions London CIC

We launched Transitions in 2010.   Since then, our corporate clients, have been hiring refugee engineers, architects and business services candidates.

The model is:

  • 6 month paid Returner Placement (ie Internship)   £1,200 fee


  • Optional retention as experienced hire candidate  15% fee

“We gained a first class Civil Engineer employee as a result of Transitions. The internship and the intern were above our expectations.”   Dawn Barker, Head of HR, Crossrail

Some figures:

The challenges:

UK refugee unemployment stands at somewhere between 18% and 70% (lack of research)

Refugee professionals’ under-employment a major issue

Refugees form an unrecognised, marginalised UK talent pool

They are almost invisible in the mainstream Engineering market

4%: UK average unemployment rate

The successes:

Jan 2011 – Dec 2019: 244 candidates
2016-2019 60% (72 of 119) new candidates restarted professional careers (ie Transitions’ placement/experienced hire)
c 60% retention from Transitions Returner Placements

“Transitions provides a credible source of engineers with the skills and experience to contribute to meeting the sector’s needs.”

Royal Academy of Engineering, Bola Fatimilehin, diversity team.  

What about permission to work?

People with Refugee Status have permission to work in the UK in any profession at all skill levels. Page 22: Anyone who is granted permission to remain in the UK as a refugee or who is granted humanitarian protection has unrestricted access to the labour market. A refugee may demonstrate their work entitlement through their Biometric Residence Permit. Refugees also have a National Insurance number. Some asylum seekers are also allowed to work. Their BRP card indicates that permission. 


It isn’t easy!  The model requires both recruitment and IAG competencies in the service.  Too much ‘recruitment’ in the mix and some candidates get left behind, too much IAG and employers won’t engage.   Both groups of stakeholders need a lot of attention. 

Being a refugee isn’t a protected characteristic – few employers are aware of this talent pool or of the barriers that exist in the jobs market for them.  It’s hard work engaging employers.

Many recruiters and hiring managers assume that people with refugee status in the UK are not allowed to work (incorrect) or do not have enough transferable professional skills and training to transition into the UK jobs market. 

ARUP candidate case study  

Job Title: Electrical Design Engineer

Company: ARUP, Permanent contract following a returner placement

Raha (name changed) is from Iraq. She has an overseas Degree and Masters in Electrical Engineering and had  7 years of engineering consultancy experience in Iraq before being forced by political instability to flee to safety.

She found it difficult to find work in her related field.  She was working as a dental receptionist for 3 years before she heard about Transitions through a friend. Lack of UK job market knowledge, no professional network and no UK experience were the biggest barriers she faced. Conscious and unconscious bias also hindered her job applications.

Transitions brokered a 3 month paid structured internship with ARUP as an electrical design engineer. Transitions also provided her with a range of quality 1-1 and group professional development and careers services, including a peer coach (another middle eastern female engineer, now working for Virgin Media group).

She learned about the UK professionals job market and how to engage effectively with it, including making use of her professional body (the IET). Her superviser described how she ‘blossomed’ during the placement and proven herself to be a valuable, overseas-experienced, multilingual asset to their work. She succeeded in gaining a permanent Design Engineer job with ARUP following the placement.

“I was impressed and surprised with myself ! I would never have had the confidence without Transitions’ encouragement and belief in my capabilities.”

Into the future

2020 and beyond will bring a new non-EU-member feel to the UK.  Perhaps it will bring more willingness by UK employers to actively include the hidden talent pools that exist in the UK, including refugee professionals, women returners and ex-military personnel.  And use social enterprises to help them do so.  I hope so.  In my view, social enterprise is here to stay.

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